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Concordia and McGill students head to China to build a zero-energy home in 22 days

Team MTL is the only Canadian contingent in the international Solar Decathlon competition
June 20, 2018
All images courtesy of TeamMTL

Concordia and McGill students are off to China to build a home like no other.

TeamMTL — a student-led group of about 40 members — is the only Canadian entry in the Solar Decathlon China 2018. The prestigious international green energy building competition challenges 22 teams to build a solar-powered house in 22 days.

The event will welcome teams from 41 schools and 10 countries.

Nima Navab, a recent computation arts graduate and researcher at the Topological Media Lab, is set to begin graduate studies at Concordia next year. He has been working on media installations for TeamMTL’s entry, dubbed Deep Performance Dwelling (DPD).

Navab says the team has been working extremely hard over the past few months to get their shipments ready. “It’s very exciting that it’s finally coming to a head,” he adds.

“We’re a large group and have been working in our own labs in different parts of the campus, or at different universities, so it will be quite something to see all our projects come together as an integrated and wholly realized space.”

International meeting grounds

The solar-centred competition officially kicks off July 9 in Dezhou, the Sun City of China. Before that, TeamMTL representatives will head to the Canadian embassy in Beijing to present the project to Chinese industry representatives and to McGill and Concordia alumni on July 6.

“The event will provide a great opportunity for us to garner further sponsorship and forge international connections before the competition begins,” says Sophie Jemtrud, a Concordia design student and TeamMTL’s communications lead.

Teams will have until July 31 to build a one- or two-storey solar house that is net-zero energy capable. The building must also be equipped with all standard household appliances, such as a fridge, stove, TV and washing machine. In addition, all houses must be capable of charging an electric vehicle.

Judges will announce the winner August 17.

The idea was to create a flexible, multifunctional space

Alex Gareau

Team MTL’s DPD is a project more than two years in the making, says recent civil engineering graduate and TeamMTL project manager Alex Gareau. He explains that the design combines Montreal row-house typology with elements of traditional Chinese siheyuan courtyard architecture.

“The house can essentially be split into two volumes. It could be set up as an intergenerational household, a rental or an office space,” Gareau says.

“The idea was to create a flexible, multifunctional space that can be adapted to the different needs of the home owner, making the house more sustainable over time.”

DPD uses a fabric-first approach that prioritizes passive design and construction. The structure employs air tightness, energy recovery systems, solar gain, natural lighting and ventilation, among other features, to obtain its net zero objective.

“The high-performance envelope is at the forefront of our design, and through it alone we were able to reduce the energy demand of the building by about 80 per cent,” says Gareau, adding that TeamMTL’s building method emphasizes prefabrication, affordability and waste reduction.

“Our goal is to make this house affordable on the Montreal market for a single family.”

An interactive, responsive home

Beyond that, the space incorporates biophilic design principles that seek to bring nature into the home. Navab and his teammates have designed four smart media installations that translate the house’s performance data into visual or sonic experiences. 

A liquid light installation embedded in the kitchen cabinets provides atmospheric lighting that communicates trends in water flow. In the courtyard, an awning responds to pulsations in solar energy by bending light through translucent materials.

The team also integrated an air quality indicator into the ceiling by the entrance door, as well as lighting automation in the living room that creates shadow trails through the suspension of light particles.

“The house becomes performative in response to peoples’ actions and movements through space,” says Navab, adding that the installations aim to imbue a natural sense of atmospheric change.

“When you’re outside, from day to night, the ambiance totally changes, so the same spot is never quite the same. When the sunrise is on the horizon, you get warm colours and shadows which come at angles that make 4 a.m. feel different than 4 p.m.”

TeamMTL aims to reproduce slow shifts of ambiance through their installations in order to relate the house’s energy patterns to its occupants in a poetic way. They hope this will encourage dwellers to think about the implications of their consumption.

Powered by Hydro Quebec

The team assembled DPD’s envelope last August (“sort of a practice run”) and prefabricated the interior (stairs, walls, etc.), before disassembling and shipping it all to China. Navab, Gareau and Jemtrud know a bigger challenge awaits them there, when TeamMTL will bring all aspects of the house together for the first time.

The team’s efforts were made possible thanks to generous backing from Hydro-Québec. With the support of the Quebec Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, the public utility donated $250,000.

“We want to lead the energy transition and help our customers choose the right technology,” said Éric Filion, president of Hydro-Québec Distribution, at the time of the funding announcement.

“By supporting TeamMTL’s innovative project, Hydro-Québec demonstrates its ongoing commitment as a central player in technologies that will make our houses even smarter and help us meet our customers’ needs into the future.”

Jemtrud adds that the support from the electricity giant was indispensable for the team’s project.

“It’s not just the money; it’s also the mentorship we received that had a huge impact. Whenever I had questions, I knew whom to call at Hydro-Québec. We learned a lot from their team,” she says.

Just getting this done is a feat in itself

Alex Gareau

Judging will take place over two weeks and will be broken down into 10 categories: architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, innovation, comfort zone, appliances, home life, commuting and energy.

Judges will also evaluate each entry for cost feasibility, power efficiency, environment adaptability, power generation capacity and architectural quality.

As part of the judging process, teams will have to cook, do laundry and host dinner parties in their newly constructed homes.

For Gareau, just making it to China is a triumph.

“We obviously want to win, but just getting this done is a feat in itself,” he says.

“To complete construction in 22 days after more than two years of hard work, stress, and all the hurdles along the way, that alone is an accomplishment.”

Jemtrud adds that regardless of how the decathlon goes, TeamMTL has plans for a phase two. The project will see three fully outfitted DPD units built in Montreal over the coming year.

Find out more about TeamMTL.


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